from Africa in Transition

The Push to Lift U.S. Communication Technology Sanctions on Sudan

January 28, 2014

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This is a guest post by Aala Abdelgadir. Aala is a research associate for the Council on Foreign Relation’s Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative.

After a year of collaboration with U.S. civil society groups and U.S. Department of State officials, members of Sudan’s civil society launched a campaign on January 20, 2014, to advocate that the U.S. government lift its technology sanctions on Sudan.

The “Sudanese Initiative to Lift U.S. Technology Sanctions on Sudan” targets a subset of comprehensive sanctions originally issued by the United States in 1997 in response to the Sudanese government’s active connection to terrorist groups (notably harboring Osama bin Laden for several years) and numerous human rights abuses. The initiative aims to educate the Sudanese public and American policy-makers about the negative impacts of sanctions on free access to information communication technologies (ICTs) and Internet in Sudan. The initiative also aims to push policy-makers to consider issuing a license to authorize access to basic hard and software technology and associated services.

In their inaugural video, the initiative emphasized the irony of sanctions. The video highlights that sanctions prevent access to Google Scholar and educational sites like Khan Academy; virtual mapping technology used to streamline crisis relief; crowd sourcing for humanitarian causes; and applications or software for professional, personal, or educational purposes. The victims of the technology sanctions are predominantly Sudanese democracy activists, human rights defenders, NGOs, educational institutions, and students.

The New America Foundation’s recent report, “Translating Norms to the Digital Age,” helps contextualize the counterproductive effects of U.S. technology sanctions. It argues that these sanctions are outdated, and fail to incorporate technology’s new role in the digital age: enabling citizens to access information freely. The report notes that limiting availability of technology actually helps regimes limit citizens’ access to information.

Recently, the U.S. government has revisited parameters of sanctions affecting Sudan, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Cuba. Exemptions were approved in 2010 by the U.S. Treasury for personal communications like email, Instant Messenger, and similar public services in some countries. In 2011, it authorized access to technology (cell phones, software, hardware, and services) to Iranians, in recognition that sanctions were inadvertently aiding the government’s censorship and surveillance regime.

Like Iran, the Sudanese government employs comprehensive censorship policies. In addition to controlling print and broadcast media in the country, the regime has moved online, monitoring and limiting access to online forums, digital news outlets, and social media websites. It has arrested digital activists, bloggers, and journalists; and shut down the Internet for twenty-four hours to contain recent protests.

Ultimately, both the Sudanese initiative and U.S. government are committed to making sanctions smarter. Indeed, the U.S. Treasury authorized certain academic and professional exchanges with Sudan in April 2013. And in an increasingly digitized and globalized world, lifting technology sanctions could transform Sudan, unleashing the pent-up energies of students, teachers, activists, and nearly eight million Internet users starved for more access to knowledge, information, and technology.